WILLIAMSTOWN — Alex Edelman will be the first to tell you he doesn’t know that much about antisemitism.
“Which is interesting,” Edelman says, “because I get asked to speak about it all the time.”
What the 33-year old comedian does know is his personal experience of Jewishness in America, which he examines with punchlines and pith in "Just for Us," an award-winning one-man show directed by Adam Brace and produced by fellow comedian Mike Birbiglia which will present a limited six-performance run at Williamstown Theatre Festival Aug. 3-6.
A genre-bending blend of stand-up comedy and theatrical monologue, "Just for Us" escorts audiences through a series of humorous anecdotes before settling into its central story: that of the time Edelman infiltrated a White Nationalist gathering in his current home of New York City after enduring antisemitic abuse online. Hilarity ensues. So does discomfort and self-reflection.
“It’s a hugely joyous show about a thing that could be not joyous,” Edelman said in an interview with The Eagle by phone. “I think that there is a world where victimhood is becoming a thing that people are very curious about rubbernecking, and I really didn’t want the show to be that — it’s much more about assimilation, which is related to antisemitism but not wholly centered on it.”
Edelman was raised in a Modern Orthodox household in Brookline where he attended Hebrew Day School before going on to do a year of yeshiva (rabbinical education) in Israel. When Edelman first began performing stand-up in comedy clubs around Boston at the age of 15, he sported a yarmulke, the traditional head covering worn by Orthodox Jewish men. Edelman has since retired the yarmulke (at least in public), but he continues to lean on his study of the Talmud — a collection of Jewish teachings that serves as the primary text of Rabbinic Judaism — when crafting his comedy.
“My Talmudic upbringing informed a Talmudic perspective which is really useful for comedy — seeing both sides of an issue, weighing something carefully, seeing details that other folks might not consider,” said Edelman. “That all comes from my background and from the way my family encouraged me to think. Comedy in general is a very observation and reason heavy job.”
For Edelman, comedy is also a demanding job — "Just For Us," which premiered in 2018 at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, is currently playing its third encore engagement at the Greenwich House Theatre in New York. The show’s present run has been nominated for every major Off-Broadway award this season, and producers announced in June that the show’s closing — originally scheduled for July 23 — would be extended to Aug. 26 due to popular demand.
This extension meant that Edelman’s run of shows at WTF would now coincide with his shows in New York, but Edelman had no qualms about taking time away from the city to bring the production to the Berkshires.
“Carving out a week from a run in the middle of a run is not the most common thing in the world, but I was like, ‘There's no way I’m not doing Williamstown,’” said Edelman. “I’ve been looking forward to this since they asked me to do it.”
Though "Just For Us" has been performed and workshopped from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to friends’ attics, the upcoming six performances at WTF mark the first extended run of shows Edelman has performed outside of New York.
“It’s special for me because Massachusetts is where I’m from, and I’ve always wanted to do a run like this at Williamstown,” said Edelman. “I love the Berkshires. It’s a Massachusetts I grew up not really in, but discovered as an adult, and what a joy it's been to discover that Massachusetts as an adult.”
When he’s not onstage making your sides split, Edelman wants to visit the James Turrell exhibition at Mass MoCA, grab a soft serve from King Kone in Pittsfield, and eat at as many local restaurants as possible (he’s taking recommendations). He also wants to hear what you think of the show. “I’m outside after every show, I always talk to people,” said Edelman. “People’s takeaways are so much more intriguing than anything I could posit.”
Edelman hopes "Just For Us" encourages audiences to think more deeply about empathy and assimilation, and acknowledges that the show contains more questions than answers about these difficult issues. “Some people ask me, “How do you solve antisemitism,” and I’m like ‘I don’t know, I’m not an authority,” said Edelman. “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sometimes says the way to solve antisemitism is to help people understand the experience of being Jewish, so I try very hard to help people understand the experience of being Jewish.”
Most of all, though, Edelman hopes audiences can laugh.
“The show is full of jokes — if you like plays, it’s a good play, but if you like comedy, it’s a lot of jokes in a row,” said Edelman. “I wrote the kind of show that I would want to see — fun and packed with jokes, but not empty calories.”
What: "Just For Us" performed by Alex Edelman
Who: Williamstown Theatre Festival
Where: Main Stage, '62 Center for Theatre & Dance, 1000 Main St., Williamstown
When: Aug. 3 - 6
Performances: 7:30 p.m., Aug. 3 and 4; 8 p.m., Aug. 5 and 6; 2 p.m. Aug. 4 and 3 p.m., Aug. 6
Tickets: $45 plus a $5 ticket fee. Reservations required.
Reservations and more information: 413-458-3253, wtfestival.org
COVID protocols: Masks are required indoors regardless of vaccination status.